Empathy for asylum seekers plummeting among Dutch voters

AMSTERDAM - The Netherlands’ self-image as an open, compassionate country took a big blow when Geert Wilders and his PVV won the parliamentary elections at the end of November, and anti-asylum seeker sentiment has only grown since then. In the autumn, half of voters considered it a moral duty to take in asylum seekers, now, it is 39 percent. Nearly half want to reintroduce border controls within the European Union, the Volkskrant reports based on research it commissioned from Ipsos I&O. 

There is a clear difference in political preference and how voters feel about asylum seekers. The more right-wing the voters, the more concerns they have about immigration. For example, 91 percent of PVV voters think immigration is the biggest problem of our time, compared to only 31 percent of GroenLinks-PvdA voters, who are far more concerned about the climate crisis. 

According to Gianna Maria Eick, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam who was not involved in this research, the immigration debate is over-polarized. “The politics are not in line with the facts.” For example, many right-wing voters have the idea that the Netherlands takes in far more asylum seekers than other EU countries, while in fact, the Netherlands is right in the middle, taking in slightly fewer asylum seekers per 1 million residents than the EU average. 

But 78 percent of PVV voters think the Netherlands takes in (far) more asylum seekers than other countries. The same is true for 72 percent of BBB voters, 62 percent of VVD voters, and 59 percent of NSC voters. “That misconception is, therefore, present in all parties that form the new coalition,” Eick said. “At the same time, one in three voters of GroenLinks-PvdA underestimates the number of asylum seekers.” 

A majority of respondents said that the Netherlands must make room for “real” refugees, but many don’t think that applies to the people currently seeking asylum in the Netherlands. Many voters describe asylum seekers as “fortune seekers,” “fake refugees” and refer to “large suitcases in Ter Apel,” with the idea that “a real refugee comes with little clothing.” 

This image seems to be strongly influenced by what politicians have called “safe-landers” - asylum seekers from countries the Netherlands considers “safe” and who stand little chance of their application being approved in the Netherlands. In reality, only 4 percent of asylum seekers in the Netherlands come from a safe country. But reports about the nuisance this group causes in villages like Ter Apel color the perception. According to the Volkskrant, many voters have the feeling that asylum seekers abuse Dutch “hospitality” and facilities. 

According to political scientist Eick, this fear that asylum seekers will steal facilities or get priority touches on “welfare chauvinism”—the position that newcomers to the country have less right to the welfare state. This sentiment is represented throughout Europe but is strikingly strong in the Netherlands and has grown here while it decreased slightly in other EU countries in the past two decades. Over half of Dutch voters think immigrants should only have access to the welfare state once they have been naturalized or not at all. Only in Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Russia do voters want to be stricter. 

“An economic explanation is often looked at, but that does not apply here,” Eick said. The Netherlands is a prosperous country with low unemployment and high incomes. Dutch also don’t spend the most on public facilities - the Netherlands is once again right around the average of the Western countries worldwide. According to Eick, this welfare chauvinism in the Netherlands is at least partly due to politicians like Geert Wilders. “He has been dominant for about 20 years with his anti-migration rhetoric. He feeds the idea that many problems are caused by newcomers.” 

Hein de Haas, a migration expert and author of the book Hoe migratie echt werkt, told the Volkskrant that there is no one-to-one relationship between the popularity of anti-immigration parties and the actual problems. “In fact, in the year that the PVV achieved its first election victory, we had a negative migration balance. So it is not about the numbers, but about political image.” 

According to De Haas, more asylum seekers have come to the Netherlands in recent years than in the preceding pandemic years, but asylum migration always happens in waves, and there is no structural increase. The high migration figure of the past two years is driven by Ukrainian refugees (100,000) and migrant workers, at least 900,000 of whom worked in the Netherlands last year. 

The biggest driver behind migration is labor, the scientist said. “But politicians have used a distraction tactic to avoid talking about that because that goes directly against the economic agenda of, for example, the VVD and BBB.” So they focused their ire on asylum seekers, De Haas said. “And if voters hear often enough in talk shows that asylum migration is a problem, it will automatically become a lived reality.”